BOSTON -- Bill Russell returned Friday to see what he had become. He turns out to be bigger than he remembered and harder to elbow off the block.
"I'm almost at a loss for words,'' he said later in the day. "Almost.''
More than 43 years since he led the Celtics to the last of his 11 championships, Russell was recognized with a statue on City Hall Plaza. The idea is for other Boston legends to be honored with more statues over the years ahead, and they'll all be looking up to him. As they should be. In Russell's 13 years as a Celtic, he was responsible for more team championships than the Red Sox, Bruins and Patriots had earned in their histories. The Red Sox will celebrate their eighth World Series title with a parade here Saturday; it took them 113 years to do what Russell had done by age 31.
The statue was privately funded (with the backing of all four major-league teams in Boston) on behalf of a nonprofit mentoring program to benefit children, which has been a longtime mission for the 79-year-old Russell.
"All I ever tried was to never shame my father,'' said Russell, who has pursued mentoring to do for others what his father did for him.
At a private ceremony, Bill Withers wrote and performed, with Russell's high school classmate Johnny Mathis, a song dedicated to Russell's relationship with his father, I Am My Father's Son. The ceremony appeared to overwhelm Russell. The list of attendees featured NBA commissioner David Stern and his impending successor, Adam Silver; Massachusetts Sen. Ed Markey and Gov. Deval Patrick; and a larger number of legendary athletes, including Jim Brown, Julius Erving, Elgin Baylor, Charles Barkley and several of Russell's teammates.
"Statues remind me of tombstones,'' Russell joked. "It's something that ends up being a target for pigeons.''
For the longest time he did not wish to be associated with the city of Boston, which subjected its greatest athlete to racism in the 1950s and '60s. But times have changed, and Russell's activism was responsible in part for the changes.
"I'm going to speak as an American and as a black man,'' said Patrick, 57. "He stood up for civil and human rights and social justice, and every time he did that he made my life better.''
When President Obama awarded Russell the Presidential Medal of Freedom two years ago, he mentioned that Russell was deserving of a statue. On Wednesday, Obama visited the statue with Russell for a preview.
The 600-pound work of bronze was sculpted by Ann Hirsch, who depicts Russell near the end of his career when he was also the first African-American coach of a major franchise. He is throwing a chest pass. He is goateed with tape wrapped around his long fingers. Surrounding him are smaller blocks of granite engraved with the themes of his life, including TEAMWORK and EDUCATION, as well as quotes of inspiration.
"I'm trying to figure out what this is all about,'' Russell said repeatedly as he spoke to an audience at a private event around the corner from his statue.
The unrealized threat of rain and wind had caused a larger public ceremony to be canceled, but 200 people showed up anyway to greet Russell as he arrived for the formal unveiling. The bright green sheet was slipped off his likeness and he found himself looking up at a vision of his old self. What he saw, in fact, was an embodiment of what he had become, and the impact his stubbornness had made. He was larger than life and not to be forgotten.
"I will admit I'm slightly embarrassed about that whole thing,'' he said later. "That statue thing.''
The meaning of his own life and the causes he championed had taken the champ by surprise.